Brain Stem Glioma - Childhood

About the brain stem

The brain stem connects the brain to the spinal cord. It is the lowest portion of the brain, located above the back of the neck. The brain stem controls many of the body’s basic functions, such as motor skills, sensory activity, coordination and walking, the beating of the heart, and breathing. It has three parts:

  • The midbrain, which develops from the middle of the brain
  • The medulla oblongata, which connects to the spinal cord
  • The pons, which is located between the medulla oblongata and the midbrain

About brain stem glioma

Brain stem glioma is a type of central nervous system (CNS; brain and spinal cord) tumor that begins when healthy cells in the brain stem change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. A glioma is a tumor that grows from a glial cell, which is a supportive cell in the brain.

Usually, by the time brain stem glioma is diagnosed, it is most often diffuse, which means it has spread freely through the brain stem. This type of tumor is typically very aggressive, meaning that it grows and spreads quickly. A small percentage of brain stem tumors are very localized, called focal tumors. A focal tumor is often less likely to grow and spread quickly.

Brain stem glioma occurs most commonly in children between five and 10 years old. Most brain stem tumors develop in the pons and grow in a part of the brain stem where it can be difficult to perform surgery, making brain stem glioma challenging to treat (see the Treatment Options section).

This section covers brain stem glioma diagnosed in children. Read more about brain tumors in adults.

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